|A Knight to Remember
Chivalry in warfare is not a new concept; medieval knights were required to follow certain virtues, such as honor, valor, and courtesy, both on and off the battlefield. Chivalry in warfare last made its appearance in the early 20th century, between the years of 1914 and 1918, in the “Great War”, better known as World War I. The acts of chivalry were almost exclusively seen in the air, as the infantry in the trenches were subjected to the horrors of not only life in the trench, but of gas attacks and suicidal machine gun charges.
The Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen). Billy Bishop. James McCudden. Rene Fonck. These are just a handful of the aces of World War I; the knights in cloth and wooden armor that sailed over the trench lines, engaging in everything from scouting and artillery spotting to zeppelin hunting and dog fighting their peers in the sky. One ace that seems to be left out of the conversations about the top aces of WWI is Oswald Boelcke, who was credited with 40 air victories.
Oswald Boelcke received his full Prussian officer commission in March 1912 as a communications officer, and was transferred to the Fliegertruppe in April of 1914 where he began his flight training. On August 15, 1914, Boelcke passed the last of his examinations to earn his wing as an observer (only pilots were given a set of wings). Soon after earning his wing Boelcke, on September 1st, 1914, was ordered to Sedan. According to his journal (published under the title of “An Aviators Field Book: Being the Field Reports of Oswald Boelcke”), he stopped to visit his brother Wilhelm in Montmedy and, at the workings of his brother, was transferred to his brother’s unit, Fliegerabteilung 13.
While flying primarily with his brother as an observer over Argonnes and Champagne, Boelcke won an Iron Cross Second Class for flying 50 missions on October 4th, 1914 and the Iron Cross First Class on January 27, 1915. The following spring, Boelcke earned his full set of wings and was transferred to Fliegerabteilung 62, located in Douai, France, the same squadron that Max Immelman was assigned to. On July 4, 1916, Boelcke achieved his first aerial victory against a French plane.
According to his journal, Boelcke landed near where the plane had gone down and found that both the pilot and observer had been killed. The next day, both of the deceased were buried by the Germans with full military honors. Boelcke had fired 380 rounds at his opponent, 27 of which hit the plane. The pilot was shot 7 times, and the observer 3 times.
On August 28th,, 1916, Boelcke noticed a young French boy had fallen into the canal near his aerodrome and succeeded in rescuing the boy. In his journal, Boelcke noted that both he and the boys’ parents shared a chuckle when the parents told Boelcke of their plans to nominate him for the French Legion of Honor. Instead of this honor, Boelcke received the German lifesaving badge.
Boelcke, along with Immelman, were awarded the “Pour le Merite” on January 12, 1916, which was the highest award for bravery in Prussia. Boelcke and Immelman were the first pilots to earn this honor. Boelcke and Immelman shared a friendly rivalry, trading the lead back and forth for record setting air victories until June of 1916, when Immelman was killed. The German brass, in shock by the now famous Immelman’s death, immediately transferred Boelcke to Turkey, where he would remain for a little over a month. During his time in Turkey, Boelcke was awarded with the Bulgarian Medal of Courage on August 5th, 1916.
Eleven days later, on August 16th, 1916, Boelcke was ordered back to Germany. On September 1st, 1916, Boelcke recorded his 20th air victory against an English pilot, who managed to land his disabled aircraft behind the German lines. Two days after the English pilots capture, Boelcke retrieved the English pilot from the prison camp and took him out for coffee and a tour of Boelcke’s aerodrome. Boelcke noted in his journal that the two men exchanged flying tips during the time they spent together. Boelcke would later pass what he learned, both on the ground and in the air, onto other young German pilots, in the form of his “Dicta”. The most famous of these young pilots was Manfred von Richthofen, better known by friend and foe alike as the Red Baron. Boelcke’s “Dicta” can be found here: http://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/comment/dicta-b.html.
In the middle of September 1916 the allies had launched a major air offensive along the German lines. Boelcke was up to 25 air victories by September 17, 1916, and recorded his 30th victory a couple of weeks later. His 40th and last air victory was recorded on October 11th, 1916.
On the afternoon of October 28th, Boelcke led his squadron, called Jasta 2, into the air for the 6th time of day, with Manfred von Richthofen and Erwin Bohme joining the flight. It is rumored that, in a hurry to get airborne, Boelcke had not properly strapped on his safety belt. Boelcke’s squadron soon encountered an English squadron and engaged them. Boelcke and Bohme went after the same aircraft, and were headed on a collision course with each other. Boelcke sighted Bohme at the last moment and moved to avoid collision, but it was too late. Bohme’s landing gear caught the upper wing of Boelcke’s aircraft, tearing it and rendering the aircraft un-flyable. Boelcke struggled to control the plane but he managed it to a soft crash landing. Unfortunately, his lap belt was not fastened correctly, and the impact was enough to kill Boelcke at the age of 25.
Boelcke was buried with full honors in his hometown of Dessau on the Ehrenfriedhof (cemetery of honor), where he still lies. One day after his death, the Royal Flying Corps dropped a wreath over Jasta 2, which would be renamed Jasta Boelcke on December 17th, 1916, with the following note: “To the memory of Captain Boelcke, a brave and chivalrous foe”.
“An Aviator’s Field Book: Being the Field Reports of Oswald Bolcke, from August 1st, 1914 to October 28, 1916” by Oswald Bolcke (kindle version)
“The red battle flyer” by Manfred Von Richtofen
“Early German Aces of World War I” by Greg VanWyngarden and Harry Dempsey